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Why Maker Faire may be Silicon Valley's most important export [video]

May 20, 2013|By Chris O'Brien

This weekend I attended the eighth annual Maker Faire with my son in San Mateo, Calif. The Maker Faire and the Maker Movement have gotten so large, it's easy to take them for granted. In fact, after going four straight years, I almost skipped this year until my son begged me to go.

I'm glad he talked me into it. From the moment we walked into the Maker Faire and saw an art car covered with robotic fish and lobsters moving to the sounds of punk rock, I was glad to be there. 

There was no one, jaw-dropping thing that struck me this year. Rather, what hit me was how much I see and hear about these things when I'm not at the Maker Faire. The greatest marvel this year may be the broader impact the event is having around the country, and indeed, around the world. 

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It got me thinking that while we dwell on smartphones and social networking, the Maker Faire may very well be every bit as important in terms of its social impact. Indeed, the Maker Faire may well be Silicon Valley's biggest cultural export. 

For those who have never been, the Maker Faire can seem like an odd hodgepodge of stuff. There are robots, gardeners, stations to teach you how build a circuit board, sewing, fire arts, and on and on. 

But what the people behind these activities all have in common is the belief that it's essential that people in some way become "makers." That is, no matter what the thing is you're building, it's deeply gratifying and incredibly educational to perform the act of creating something, anything. Whether it's sewing a hat, making a sculpture garden of masking tape, or whatever.

Speaking on stage Sunday, Atari co-founder Nolan Bushnell said: "We are making the tools for passion. When I look around, I don't see any apathy here."

Maker Faire was the brain child of Dale Dougherty, who created Make Magazine for O'Reilly Publishing, based in Sebastopol, Calif., and one of the largest computing book publishers in the world. Dougherty envisioned the magazine as a kind of Martha Stewart-for-geeks endeavor. When the first Maker Faire in 2006 attracted 18,000 people, Dougherty was pleasantly surprised. This year, the event was expected to draw more than 165,000 people over two days. 

Since the first Maker Faire, its message -- to remind us of the joy of creating -- has resonated widely. There are now dozens of Maker Faires and Mini-Maker Faires held around the world every year. (See this map for a complete list.)

Indeed, things have gotten so big that O'Reilly announced earlier this year it would spin off Maker Media into a separate company with Dougherty as CEO. 

"The Maker Movement is taking off," Tim O'Reilly, founder and CEO of O'Reilly Media, said in a statement at the time. "A movement that began with enthusiasts has turned into an entrepreneurial revolution."

I think I love the Maker Faire so much because it reminds me of what I find so fascinating about Silicon Valley. With its obsession about money and success, the valley can make you a very cynical person. But I imagine that if you strip away those surface blemishes, the real Silicon Valley is something that looks a lot like the Maker Faire.

That message may sound simple, but I consider it essential. We live in a world where the objects around us seem increasingly complex, hard to understand and intimidating. There's a growing distance between us and the world, where we don't know where our food comes from, how the energy we use gets made, and how to take apart our computer and fix it. 

To some degree, we have all felt that the building blocks of our world seem increasingly outside our grasp. Everything is increasingly complex, whether it's our cars, the gadgets in our homes, or the computers that run our lives.

The Maker Faire dares us to reverse that trend. And it inspires us to do that by gathering together thousands of people who embody that simple joy of creating things every day. Many of the products here have no commercial value, no business model. People make a lot of this stuff because they can. That is enough.

It's a message that Silicon Valley can be proud to share with the world. 

(Music in the video, "Cafe Connection" by morgantj, is licensed under  Creative Commons Attribution (3.0)).

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